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Congress & the CIA
What the Congressional “Torture Report” Missed About the Hunt for Bin Laden

Torture, “enhanced interrogation”, take your pick of terminology: It probably had more to do with finding Osama bin Laden than the Senate Intelligence Committee would like you to think. Writing in National Review, Ian Tuttle points out that:

[T]he majority report offers no evidence to rebut a particularly damning accusation leveled by the minority: “the Study’s use of hindsight to criticize the CIA for not recognizing the significance of previously collected, but not fully-understood intelligence information.”

According to the minority report, the information about al-Kuwaiti acquired in 2002 “sat unnoticed in a CIA database for five years” because “that intelligence was insufficient to distinguish Abu Ahmad from many other Bin Ladin associates until additional information from detainees put it into context and allowed us to better understand his true role and potential in the hunt for Bin Ladin.” So the CIA wrote in its June 2013 response to the majority report.

This is a point that goes beyond the defense that many, even President Obama, have mounted: that we were operating blind after 9/11 and acted out of understandable panic. “Putting together the dots” was rightly a big focus of post-9/11 intelligence efforts, and if “enhanced interrogation” helped to do this, that’s a major point in favor of its effectiveness. The American people also seem instinctively to get this point—which goes some way to explaining the stubbornly un-PC poll numbers on the issue.

The Senate majority report, viewed in this light, essentially argued that, because the data we needed was somewhere in the intelligence equivalent of the Indiana Jones warehouse, we were fine; defenders of the CIA sound reasonable in saying that, in the real world, we needed to know what was important and where to find it. In sum, this is precisely the sort of stuff that makes the Senate report problematic and less of an open-and-shut case than the supporters of the report would like it to be. There are real questions about how far Americans should go and what limits we should observe in the pursuit of national security. But the knee-jerk argument that “torture never works” seems to be, as Dean Acheson would say, ‘clearer than truth.’

There are strong arguments in favor of strict limits on what Americans should do in extracting information from captured terrorists. Senator John McCain does a very good job of setting them forth. In addition, there is the argument that since our open and democratic society is not very good at keeping dirty secrets, and that the things we do in the cellar are going to be shouted from the housetops, we should always behave as if people were looking. As a society, we are not going to give the inquisitors a blank check, but there’s a legitimate debate about how narrowly we should limit their discretion.

There are also some unpleasant tradeoffs to consider: one way to reduce our reliance on “enhanced interrogation” involves much more intensive electronic surveillance. Is that really where civil libertarians want the debate to go?

The one thing that seems clear so far is that the Senate report isn’t the last word in a contentious and continuing debate. The “torture” debate involves some very ugly truths and some very hard choices, and a one sided report, however shocking, won’t settle one of the most difficult policy issues we face.

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  • Boritz

    You remember that James Bond movie Never Say Never where Sean Connery came back to play JB after saying he would never play the part again?  That was awesome.

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